Uncovering the Mystery of Modesty

Uncovering the Mystery of Modesty A few years ago, my family and I spent our summer vacation up north in Tzfat, leaving our home in Central Israel for a few days. We were located smack in the heart of Tzfat's Old City, right next to the Artist Quarter. We thought it would be a great place to take in the holiness of ancient times and for our children to have the freedom to run around in a small, quiet, almost village-like setting.

What we didn't know was that every day hundreds of young American college students would be pouring through, right outside our door, as they made their way from the Artist's Quarter to the other parts of the Old City. My husband and I decided to take the opportunity to reach out to these young men and women.

I breathed deeply and did my best to explain. So I went over to one of the women and asked, "Hi, I see you are touring Israel. I was wondering if you have any questions that you'd like to ask a fellow English speaker." She looked a little surprised, but after a couple of seconds, she asked, "Yeah, I was actually wondering about something. Why do the women cover themselves up so much?"

I only had a few minutes, as they were standing outside an ancient synagogue, waiting for their turn to go in. I breathed deeply and did my best to explain one of the most misunderstood aspects of Judaism.

A quick glance at an Orthodox community raises questions in the mind of one brought up in western culture. Why do they cover themselves up so much? Isn't it hot? What are they hiding? Where do they come from? Get with the times!

One of the most misunderstood Hebrew words is tzniut, often translated as modesty. Tzniut is a concept highly valued in traditional Judaism, not only as an ideal for women to strive for, but for men as well. It is lauded as a most noble virtue, as proven by the Rabbinic statement, "There is nothing more beautiful than modesty."

This idea hits western culture straight in the nose. In a world of "If you got it, flaunt it," modesty is a trait to be avoided, something primitive, reminding us of images of some ancient family photo of a stiff great-grandmother from Europe. We've outgrown that concept, haven't we?

But Judaism is an eternal religion. There's no such thing as a Jewish law being outdated. Jews have been living within in the guidelines of the Torah for thousands of years, and they will continue to do so. Since the Torah does not demand from us what is archaic or not fair, perhaps our concept of tzniut needs to be re-examined.

One of the first mentions of tzniuts is in Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Ki Sisah, which discusses the giving of the first Tablets (two stones on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments) to the Jewish people. This took place with elaborate fanfare, which the whole world knew about. The end result was the golden calf and a broken set of tablets. Our Creator then decided to give us the second tablets in a more private manner—a small, quiet event, between G‑d and the Jewish people. That was when G‑d said: "There is nothing more beautiful than tzniut," a word which would more accurately be translated as privacy.

When something is secret, it's special Privacy. Not quite as annoying a word as "modesty." After all, who doesn't value privacy? Children throughout the world enjoy secret clubhouses or private codes. And adults cherish private letters that they stash away at the back of their drawer, or call their spouses and children nicknames that only family members know the true meaning of. When something is secret, it's special.

When something is private, it shows that we admire and appreciate it. Disclosing it to the public would degrade it and take away some of the exclusivity of whatever it is that we want to keep private.

But what exactly are we trying to hide? After all, Americans pride themselves on their openness and genuineness. By covering myself up, am I not simply putting on a front?

Let's put that question on the back burner for a moment. Let's talk about people. That is, what makes people who they are? If I were to describe my friend, I might say she is thin, dark haired and short. But is that who she really is? That could describe tens of people at any gathering (especially if it's a Jewish function). Even if I would give a very detailed physical description, does that give a true portrait of my friend? Hopefully not. Hopefully, my friend has much deeper characteristics—such as thoughtfulness, generosity and patience. Or perhaps she is analytical and fair.

If someone had to describe you, would you want them to solely focus on how you look? Would someone want their epitaph to say, "He was blonde, tall, and a little heavy."? Most thinking people hope that after they pass on, they will be remembered for their inner noble qualities. Because they know that these are the qualities that really count, the traits that made their life worth living.

Now let's go back to our question. What is the purpose of tzniut? What are we covering up when we follow the Torah's guidelines of proper dress?

More important than what we are covering is what we are exposing. The most prominent parts of the body that are allowed to be seen are the face and the hands. These two body parts express the inner self. The face reveals who we are: the smile, the eyes (which are windows to the soul), facial expressions, etc. Our hands represent what we do, our endeavors in life. Here we have it: the face and the hands, people's inner content and their accomplishments. In other words, the part of ourselves that we may share with others is the spiritual self.

She is exposing her real self When people dress in accordance with the laws of tzniut, they are achieving two goals. Firstly, they are keeping private what should be private, thus enhancing the special intimacy between husband and wife. Additionally, they are allowing the outside world to get a true glimpse of who they really are.

Not only are the laws of tzniut not sexist, they actually serve to curb sexism. A woman who follows the laws of tzniut is ensuring that others see her for who she really is, not just for how she looks. When a woman covers up her body, she is not hiding her true identity. To the contrary, she is exposing her real self.

The greatly misunderstood concept of tzniut is actually a beautiful idea, integral to a spiritual life. Jewish philosophy speaks of many great rewards for those who follow these laws carefully, such as protection from physical harm , fertility and particularly bearing children who love Torah. But besides the payment promised, men and women who make tzniut a part of their lives will see benefits in improved relationships with others and a better sense of self.

So who is tzniut for anyway? Yes, it is to help others guard their eyes from what they should not see. But tzniut also tremendously enriches those who make the effort to incorporate it into their lives.


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